Monday, February 28, 2011

Flat-Lining Through Mortality?

Without a trace of melancholy, Pastor Dow's widow gushed excitedly to my mother, "I want to know what he's doing!"

The minister who married my parents received his eternal reward just after Christmas, at the age of 85. He and his wife, Mim, had spent their ministry serving throughout New England, including the coastal Maine congregation in Sedgwick where my Mom was raised, in the stately white church overlooking the village.

He had been a preacher from the old school, Pastor Dow, who lived and breathed his pastoral calling. Always studying, always memorizing, always visiting, always with a smile on his face, quick to encourage and loathe to despair, seemingly insatiable in his thirst for knowledge, wisdom, and faithfulness in all things Godly.

Just getting by on a retired pastor's pension in suburban Boston, a part of the country whose cost of living has become outrageously expensive, hardly seemed grievous enough a cause to move away. Besides, even in retirement, their own pastor valued his contributions to the small but faithful flock. Helping in worship services, leading prayers, teaching the children's Bible lesson; it's debatable whether the Dows ever actually retired at all.

Being diagnosed with cancer didn't seem to perturb Pastor Dow either, or Mim. The disease and its treatments posed grave prospects, yet little cause for angst, since they trusted implicitly in God's sovereignty. When my mother talked to them about it on the phone, they treated his cancer as a nuisance at worst, and at best, a gateway for Heaven.

Just Inside the Eastern Gate

So even when he died just before the New Year, his wife and daughters hardly seemed capable of mustering the requisite distress to mourn his passing. Indeed, Pastor Dow himself had gotten in the habit of advising his loved ones that if he passed away before them, he'd meet them "just inside the Eastern Gate." As if we were all booked on an exclusive vacation package, but we didn't know the date our ticket had stamped on it. If you get to go first, or I do, here's where we'll meet up. Like you'd do at a tourist icon in Paris or London.

It was in this vein of expectancy, certainty, and inevitability, then, that Mim exclaimed to my mother recently her wonderment at what her husband must be doing up in Heaven.

"I want to know what he's doing!"

Is he greeting family members and loved ones who had gone on before him? Organizing reunions of the Saints Triumphant from churches he'd pastored through the years? Meeting those who, unbeknownst to him, came to Christ through his ministry?

Or might he still be at the feet of Jesus, even two months into his eternal reward, spellbound with awe at His indescribable majesty?

Whatever Pastor Dow is doing at this moment in Heaven, we know theoretically that it pales in comparison to what even he, with all the expectancy and anticipation he'd exhibited throughout his lifetime for eternity, could have imagined. And Mim knows this. Beyond the pale lies glorious reality that defies mortal description, yet her thirst for her own reward - an almost literal thirst - cannot be quenched. The energy and desire emoted in the way she asked her question told my Mom that the promise of Heaven is as real to her as it could possibly be. Maybe now even moreso.

Yet, how real is it to you and me?

I Want to Want to Know

Sure, when we're at a loss for words at the funeral of a saint we knew was bound for Heaven, sometimes we fall into a hollow, churchy hypothetical conversation, pondering about what they're doing now. But we do so more out of wistful remembrance of the dearly departed, instead of an insatiable desire to join with those who have reached the farthest shore.

We're still too tied down here on Earth, with our aspirations, and even our anxieties. For us, Heaven can wait. Twenty-first century America is what we know.

We've got money to earn, families to raise, new things to purchase, employers to impress, and even a yard to mow and laundry that needs to get washed. Our lives are lived by clocks and phone calls, text messages and flight schedules. We operate on a horizontal plane, with a few blips upward on Sundays or when a crisis strikes. If you're anything like me, we're mostly flat-lining our way through mortality.

Except Mim.

Not that she's decided to cloister herself off from humanity and bide her time alone in a room, so caught up in the heavenlies that she's no Earthly good. And not even that she doesn't miss her husband terribly, and reminisce about sweeter days in his company.

Instead, for the Dows, Heaven's glories have been a palatable, even pungent mirage, shimmering just above the desert heat of human travail, of which they've experienced their share. Yet for all of the complications and rationalizations we busy post-modern believers can make of theology, theirs has been an incessant, childlike trust in God.

But childlike isn't really an adjective we Christian adults like, is it? Who wants to have their faith described as "childlike?" Doesn't that sound too immature and uneducated? Unsophisticated, unproven, unbalanced, and irresponsible?

Sometimes I wonder, though, who the more immature Christian is.

The one who marginalizes the literal glory of our Heavenly Father, or the one who basks in its promise?

I don't know about you, but I want to want to know what Pastor Dow is doing.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Pro-Life Ad Stokes Gotham's Racist Ire

Sometimes, when a story comes together, it really tells another story.

Take, for example, the decision Thursday by a billboard company to remove a controversial pro-life advertisement in New York City.

Ever since the billboard went up, featuring a blank-faced black girl in a frilly pink dress, and the blunt assertion that "the most dangerous place for an African-American is in the womb," liberals have been howling.

Howling about the blatant racism. Howling about the exploitation of children. Howling about the hateful rhetoric directed at helpless black women. Howling about the temerity of right-wing Texas zealots to post such a bigoted thing in the heart of Manhattan's uber-hip SoHo neighborhood.

The Truth Hurts

Here's Part "A" of the story.

This past Tuesday night, Lamar Advertising set up the 29-foot-high billboard on a low-rise building near the exclusive loft apartments of urbane movie stars and hedge fund managers. Wednesday morning, sponsors of the advertisement, a non-profit called Life Aways which is funded by Heroic Media, held a press conference in New York to explain why they were making such a bold ethical statement in such an ultra-liberal community. They were joined by members of New York City's religiously conservative clergy, including evangelical Harlem minister and former congressional candidate Michel Faulkner.

You'll recall an earlier post of mine which discussed the horrific abortion rate in New York City, and how almost 60% of all pregnancies to black New Yorkers are terminated by abortion. It's this form of clandestine eugenics, practiced under the guise of female empowerment, that the Texas-based non-profit and its New York sponsors wanted to highlight.

As advertising campaigns go, this one proved to be relatively short-lived. After hearing word that workers at a Mexican restaurant beneath the billboard were being verbally assaulted by passers-by infuriated by its pro-life message, Lamar Advertising decided to take it down. Two days after putting it up. But by doing so, Lamar has fueled the flames by giving more media exposure to the pro-life movement than its liberal detractors had intended.

Get Real

Pro-abortion activists just can't catch a break. That's Part "B" of the story.

To begin with, Lamar has come under some suspicion for yanking down the billboard so early into its run. And their altruistic effort to protect restaurant workers holds little credibility. New Yorkers aren't exactly bereft of street-smart savvy. How many SoHo residents would think to blame the wait staff at their local Mexican bistro for the content of a completely unrelated billboard attached to the same multi-tenant building?

Second, for all their pride in being tolerant and open-minded, having New Yorkers react so viciously to this one billboard smacks of the very hateful rhetoric they accuse conservatives of perpetrating. What part of the billboard's message isn't factual? A 60% abortion rate for a particular race in one of America's most progressive cities sounds pretty heinous to me. What's wrong with pointing this out during Black History Month? How funny to hear some self-professed hard-core liberals actually complain that their indignant left-wing brethren are abdicating basic decorum regarding free speech in their responses to this billboard.

And then there's the mother of the girl portrayed in the ad. She has joined the furor, indignant that her child's image was used for such a disturbing message. What's curious about this little sideshow, however, is the fact that the mother had intentionally sold her daughter's image to a stock photo company. She had signed-off on the customary legal acknowledgements that the stock imagery taken of the girl could be used anywhere by anybody. Did the mother take advantage of her daughter by selling her image to a graphics company for unknown purposes? What a parallel to the bigger picture here, lady. Welcome to the real world.

In fact, speaking of the real world, let's cut to the chase: what part of this picture has elicited the deepest emotional backlash? The part about 60% of black pregnancies being aborted? No. The part about black pastors from New York City joining in support of the billboard? No.

It's that some tourists from Texas had the audacity to remind sophisticated New Yorkers that abortion is murder. It's not about the supposed morality of a woman getting to choose the medical procedures she undergoes. It's not even about the morality of educating women on how they can avoid unwanted pregnancies in the first place.

Liberal New Yorkers hate it when cosmopolitanism doesn't obscure reality.

Who's the Racist?

You see, black-on-black shootings in urban America's toughest ghettos trouble liberals for a brief moment when they hear about them on the news. But comparing the gang violence killing America's blacks to the profitable, self-indulgent abortion industry strikes at the soul of abortion's wicked double-standard. Think about it: if 60% of black youngsters were being slaughtered on the meanest streets of Harlem or the Bronx, who'd be yelling the loudest for something to be done?

Which gives us the second story, told by parts A and B.

In advertising terms, this billboard hit a home run: it was on a prominent space in a celebrity neighborhood in the world's media capital. It was targeted at an audience whose very inability to ignore it would foment the word-of-mouth and press coverage necessary to propel its profile into the pop-culture stratosphere. Now, a world that until Wednesday had never heard of Life Always, or that 60% of black pregnancies ended in murder in New York, knew about both. And could hear the inane blather of left-wingers corroborate the discrepancy between how abortion rights are good for minorities.

The fact that this billboard lasted only two days hardly diminishes the cost of what should have been its three-week run. Indeed, Life Always and Heroic Media have told two stories from one billboard. Rumors that Lamar may not even bill them for it only adds icing to the cake.

True to form, Letitia James, a liberal black New York City councilwoman from Brooklyn, exclaimed "we won!" after learning that the billboard would be coming down.

Yeah, right, Tish. Guess again.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Extremism Ain't Working For Us

I don't know why, but I'm always amazed when I discover yet another evangelical writer hammering nails into America's right-wing platform. Most of these guys - and they're mostly guys - get more excited and animated talking American politics and economics than they do the Gospel.

It makes me wonder what I'm missing.

When I was growing up, my parents taught me to rely on the Bible as my principle resource for developing my worldview. Maybe that's because my Mom is a Republican, and my Dad is a Democrat, and they didn't want to spend their marriage quarreling over politics.

For years, they didn't even register to vote, since it would have just risked creating unnecessary strife in the family.

Today, however, I look around me in my Christian environment and see just about everybody reading off of the same script - and it's not the Bible. It's the script co-authored by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, with Red Stater's and the Koch brothers as editors and publishers.

It's a Grand Story

It's a script based on the incompetency of government, the purity of unregulated economic markets, the immorality of people who don't earn an elite salary, and the supremacy of a nation that didn't even exist during any timeframe the canon of scripture was inspired by God Himself.

Instead of God and Jesus, two Beings many conservatives respect, their heroes are the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, the reluctant president George Washington, and the adulterer Thomas Jefferson. Maybe the reason God's Son doesn't get top billing is because He instructed a rich ruler to give his wealth away. Or because He's never voted Republican. Or votes, period.

Granted, the simplicity of right versus wrong, black and white, and conservative versus liberal make viewing the world a lot easier. Except things aren't always as simple as we think they are, are they?

Consider capitalism. Free markets give the illusion of working well until you get a crisis in the Middle East, and the price for a gallon of gas begins surging towards $4. Airlines then increase their fares, the value of SUVs tanks, and our tourism industry freaks out at the prospect of a ruined summer vacation season.

If capitalism was really as pure as some conservatives claim it to be, would the price of gas really be able to inflict so much damage on other industries which are equally legitimate?

Of course, at this point, right-wingers would say that volatility in foreign oil prices means we need to develop our petroleum reserves here in the United States. Which sounds logical until you remember that it would take the better part of a decade to get the necessary infrastructure up and running to replace our dependence on imported oil. Couldn't that time be better spent developing alternative fuels? What part of capitalism should be used to discourage innovation by favoring old-industry firms like oil conglomerates?

Conservatives have a far less dubious stance when it comes to unions, and the budget spectacle we're witnessing this week in Wisconsin. Back during the Industrial Revolution, unions helped secure health safeguards and employment standards that we take for granted today. However, whereas unions used to fight for basic worker rights, they've now lost their perspective as human workers have become liabilities to employers. It has become increasingly unrealistic for liberals to keep defending rising union wages and benefits when the private sector workforce is being decimated by corporate America's addictive hoarding mentality.

Oops. Even when conservatives are right, they can be wrong. You never hear their talking heads bemoaning the reality that most of the companies who've suppressed salaries and cut the most employees have done so with cash and profits to spare.

The Road to You-Know-Where is Paved With You-Know-What

Now, before anybody brands me as a fascist socialist, I think our democracy, despite it's flaws, is still the best government on the planet. Our economy, despite showing serious signs of weakness, retains enough integrity and remains dynamic enough to correct itself if we act prudently. Those things which are broken in our society have not malfunctioned primarily because the systems themselves have failed. Our economic and political systems were never perfect to begin with.

And that's what we need to realize. There is no perfect way to make money or govern people. Everything we create is flawed, relative to the degree with which we interact in it. We make mistakes. And we sin. The only part of world history that has been perfect was that indefinite timespan between Creation and the Fall.

So, since nobody's perfect, and since we do have some pretty stiff problems in our country, what's the best way to go about improving what needs improvement? Is it constantly casting blame, trying to legislate morality, and taking sides against each other working for us?

Since when have political and economic compromise become such dirty concepts? Who says our Founding Fathers didn't have to bury numerous hatchets before the great documents of our federation were signed? Why do the Nancy Pelosi's and Sarah Palin's of our modern pop-governance slug-fests need to be the standard-bearers of their supercilious minions?

If our problems are as grave as experts say they are, at what point should we recognize the need to quit cheerleading for our respective viewpoints and work to build upon common ground? By now, we all know what the right-wingers and left-wingers think about themselves and each other, and see how far we've gotten with this posturing and spin?

Parroting the evils of liberal economics won't do conservatives much good if our GDP gets swallowed up by the Chinese. Casting conservatives as evil won't save liberals if Social Security bankrupts our budget. As the saying goes, we're all in the same boat, and if it sinks, it won't matter what side you're claiming is the most righteous.

Politicians have already proven to be the most capable people at preserving their own self-interests. Why should conservatives - and people of faith, no less - continue to egg them on?

Remember: this world isn't ours anyway.

Not to waste - or keep.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reid Tries Nixing a Nevada Vice

If you thought it got a little chilly last night, you weren't imagining things.

Harry Reid, Senator from Nevada, told his home state legislators they need to outlaw prostitution. In the last state where it's still legal.

OK... stop laughing.

The Las Vegas Sun called Reid's challenge a "real showstopper."

World Magazine said his surprise met with dead silence from his audience of Nevada politicos.

The founder of Hookers for Jesus - I'm not making this up - said crime would actually increase in Las Vegas, the only place in Nevada where it's currently illegal. Apparently, making prostitution a crime across the state could actually stoke the vast underground red-light district in Sin City, since the loss of legalized adultery at the state's thirty-some brothels could automatically drive perverts to where the rest of the action is.

For the record, despite its woefully misguided name, Hookers for Jesus is actually an organization serving people trying to extricate themselves from the sex trade. And yes, Nevada allows both female and male prostitutes.

Just as bizarre, however, has been the scramble by politicians of all stripes to distance themselves from Reid's remarks, which actually comprised a small part of a much larger speech on the economy. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have dismissed the idea of banning prostitution state-wide as a local issue, and not something to be imposed on all communities throughout Nevada.

Sin as an Economic Problem

Reid says he felt the time had come to address the issue because it has become an economic stumbling block for the state. He relayed to his audience a recent incident in which a potential corporate relocation to Nevada fell through after the company owner became uneasy about moving to the last state allowing something as sordid as prostitution.

In an era where companies have become extremely sensitive to public relations and the perceptions consumers have of them, Reid claims, legalized prostitution may be holding Nevada back in the court of public opinion. And, in turn, economic development.

Of course, that is a nebulous assertion that will be difficult for anybody to prove. Nevada has other issues which give pause to most of corporate America. First, of course, is the nefarious image gambling - legalized or not - continues to hold on the state, despite widely reported studies showing the old crime families now have less control over the casinos than ever.

Second involves the continuing saga of limited water availability in the state's parched desert landscape. Then there's the region's intense climate and relative isolation. On the menu of choice relocation sites, plenty of other states vie for contention with far more amenities than Nevada can hope for, even with prostitution made illegal (and forced underground).

And that's the real issue, isn't it? Already, most tourists to Las Vegas have no idea fornication for pay isn't legal along the Strip. Yet everybody knows it happens. If you want to, take my word for it: I Googled the topic for proof that it flourishes in the town made famous for gambling and licentiousness. Just because it's technically illegal doesn't mean it doesn't exist. And whether prostitution is legal or not, for decades, Nevada has billed itself as the place where morality takes a perpetual holiday. It'll take a lot more than legislation to make fornication unpopular there.

I wonder, too, if with online hook-up sites, including social networking sites, widening the pool of free illicit intimacy, how much longer might sex for a price be as viable a business as it is now? Taking a gander at the entrepreneurial girlie emporiums on Nevada's version of family news sites, legalized prostitution today doesn't appear to be all that glamorous. Truck drivers and frat boys may drive the low-end legal businesses, while celebrities and other A-listers probably drive the high-end escort business; and which do you think will be forced to close if prostitution were made illegal?

Will Making it Illegal Make it Go Away?

Not that it shouldn't be. True, you can't legislate morality, but prostitution is more than just immoral and unethical. Indeed, prostitution in any form provides a gateway for human trafficking, physical and emotional abuse, and other crimes. Even when it's "regulated" in places like Nevada. There are valid reasons why most societies around the world outlaw sex for money. Governments have no business endorsing such destructive practices. And, at least this once, Reid is right in calling for its prohibition in his home state. Even if he says it's purely for economic reasons.

Yeah, sure, Harry - wink, wink. The problem with somebody like Harry Reid calling for making prostitution illegal is that his credibility as an economic expert - or even a moral crusader - has already fallen to within the same level of the fantasy ranch owners he wants to put out of business. It's too easy not to take him seriously - on this issue, or any issue.

Actually, all he's probably done is remind those of us with moral fiber of the reasons why Nevada doesn't make for the most ideal family vacation destination. And... for those without any moral fiber, he's reminded them of why Nevada doesn't make for the most ideal family vacation destination, too.

I've never had a desire to visit Nevada, except maybe to tour Hoover Dam. The state's fixation on celebrating vices has clouded my perception of the place, and legalized prostitution simply adds to that sleazy mix. Removing it won't make Nevada any more appealing to me, nor will it increase the "family fun" spin state tourism officials have recently been trying to cultivate. You won't be sinning simply by visiting Las Vegas, of course, but as long as your moral compass works, you should get bored there pretty fast.

If Reid had played his cards right all these years, maybe people in the Silver State would be taking him more seriously (and yes, the pun is intended). But then, if he'd been playing his cards right, he wouldn't have gotten very far in Nevada with such strong ethics.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Wisconsin Dems Should Practice Liberality

For two days, I've been wracking my brain, trying to figure out what's so novel and intriguing about the political stalemate in Wisconsin.

Having Republicans angry about taxpayers funding lucrative union benefits isn't new. Having Democrats accusing Republicans of destroying America's middle class by union-busting isn't new, either.

And as they say here in Texas, "shoot fire!" Having petulant legislators high-tale it to another state to avoid a vote ain't new, neither. Texas Democrats pulled that stunt back in 2003, when they fled to neighboring Ardmore, Oklahoma to protest Republican redistricting.

Not that Republicans can hold their heads too high in this matter of elected officials cowering out-of-state to keep from doing their jobs; they did it in California in 1994 and Nevada in 1999. And, if you're keeping score, Democrats have also pulled this stunt in Alabama and Oregon.

That makes it two to four; Democrats win.

Or do they?

Can this be a pretty picture for politicians who aspire to portray themselves as representatives of the disenfranchised? Don't these walkouts only delay the inevitable? Is such petulance an ethical way of conducting the public's business?

Perhaps what's most discouraging about the scene being played out in Wisconsin this week isn't that politicians can get away with antics like this. Instead, it's what this goofy vignette of political hubris represents: the inability of both the electorate and the elected to balance current responsibilities with future rewards.

I'm not disparaging liberal Democrats on this issue just because I personally believe most unions have outlived their usefulness and need to be neutered. Plenty of issues exist in our sociopolitical discourse on which Republicans have taken similarly myopic stances.

But at what point do the blinders of our prejudices fall away, and we realize maybe we don't have the best viewpoint? We actually ARE incorrect? Somebody else is right.

Has our wildly individualistic American self-as-hero-worship finally begun to get the better of us? Has our society evolved to the point in which three hundred million people can all have different opinions and all be correct? Have we now spun every fact wildly out of its orbit? Does our reality now consist of millions of porcelain plates, each spinning on spindle rods? With our politicians and talk radio personalities scurrying around, keeping them from falling?

Whatever happens in Wisconsin this week won't be the end of America, but it could be a healthy dose of unscripted reality if, in this case, liberals see that times are indeed a' changin'. After all, they're always the ones coming up with the wacky social experiments conservatives have to be cajoled to tolerate. They're the ones usually foisting redefinitions of social mores and institutions on the rest of us.

Come on, Wisconsin Democrats: Let's see you walk the talk.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Delight in the Widow's Might

It's been called the "widow's mite," the tiny amount of money Christ watched the poor widow give to the temple treasury (Mark 12:41-44). Two small copper coins.

Much has been written and pontificated about how this offering by an impoverished, disenfranchised woman compares to the large sums of money being given by far wealthier people.

But how much of it do we take to heart? I, for one, struggle with this passage.

If poverty and wealth exist as relative terms, we can recognize that the larger theme of this scenario has less to do with the actual size of the offering, and more to do with how much money was left over afterwards.

For the widow, Christ observes that she gave all that she had. Whereas the wealthy put in money out of their surplus. Christ didn't put a dollar amount on what the wealthy gave, or a fixed percentage. Instead, He looked at their hearts. Indeed, God has never needed the actual currency that His people tithe and offer to Him. He wants to see how we arrive at the amount we release. Church offerings aren't so much a fundraising exercise as they are a demonstration of faith.

So, who had richer faith? The widow, who likely left the temple with nary a clue as to where her next meal or rent money would come from? Or the wealthy givers, who left the temple with considerably more confidence in their income stream? Which lifestyle begets greater faith? Some might want to argue that the more lavish the lifestyle, the greater faith you need that you'll be able to keep it going. But I'm thinkin' that ain't what Christ had in mind.

In fact, Christ knew that the widow's confidence did not come from what she had, but from something she could never purchase. There was little need for her to hoard money, since her trust lay God.

Now, we know that taken wholistically, the Bible does not teach that believers should intentionally become economically destitute. We are to provide for our families, be prudent in our saving, and be responsible for looking out for the needs of others. We can't do much of that if we're literally giving away every cent we earn.

But what Christ intends for His disciples to glean from this temple vignette involves recognizing that whatever we have is not ours. Whether we have a lot of whatever society values, or not. None of it is ours to keep, and it's not even really ours to give away. It's all God's. And to the extent that we're willing to return to Him all that He's entrusted to us, we should be confident that He will supply our needs.

Everything. Like we would be walking out of church, utterly dependant on our Savior for not only our salvation, but our daily bread.

The widow's might was God Himself. Would that we were so empowered.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Judge Grace Amazingly

To many evangelical Christians, grace and judgement can appear to be polar opposites.

We deserve to be judged. We don't deserve grace.

Grace is what God gives us after we've been judged to be unworthy sinners. And, all thanks to our loving Father, that is true enough, of course.

But even though grace begins where judgment ends, judgment doesn't completely disappear from the scene, does it?

Oh, Conversations that Cometh from FaceBook!

I'm proud to say that I have an eclectic group of FaceBook friends. People post items from all across the social and political spectrum, including a heavy dose of serious religious content.

The other day, one of my FaceBook friends was musing about judgment and grace, eliciting a variety of responses; some, canned Sunday School fluff, and others more introspective. There were the conventional digs at judgmental Christians who don't dispense enough grace, a behavioral pattern I tend to emulate to my shame. Others wrote saccharine-laced catch phrases for enjoying life in freedom.

Now, granted, FaceBook hardly provides the ideal forum for deep theological dialog, but as I read the responses from other people, I got the impression that they were either not investing much thought into what they were saying, or they didn't have a lot of thought to say anything genuinely true.

Also, knowing my friend and recalling a conversation we once had about believers who use grace as a license for sin, I sensed that he wanted this to be an opportunity for shared conviction on the topic.

What Price Grace?

So, this is what I wrote:

Most of us under-appreciate the gravity of both grace and judgment. I think there's a weight to grace in that we're responsible for how we use the freedom from sin Christ purchased for us. Christians who consider grace a blank check need to review the debts and deposits in their account.

The thing about grace is that the freedom it provides us cost somebody something. In the case of our salvation, it cost God His Son. You are not your own; you were bought at a price. (1 Corinthians 19b-20a)

Although believers do not live under the law but under grace, we are not to use grace as a licence to do anything outside of God's will (Jude 1:4).

When you balance your checkbook, whether it's on the old-fashioned booklet you get from your bank, or it's on a software program, you have to reconcile your deposits and your debts. When it comes to our faith, where do all of the deposits come from? Here's a clue: none of them come from anything we do.

All we have comes from Christ. Whose sacrificial death was the only thing which could satisfy God's holy wrath.

Grace from judgment is free to us because it cost Someone else dearly. What joy to know God loves us that much! What gravity in knowing that love wasn't free.

"FaceBook Like?"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Big Oil's Shakedown for Chump Change

Last year, America's top seven oil companies earned a combined $755 billion.

About one percent of that revenue came from federal subsidies.

Yet after President Barak Obama proposed eliminating $4 billion in kickbacks you and I pay Big Oil each year, some conservatives haven't stopped squawking their displeasure.

Yesterday, I blasted Obama for compromising our nation's fiscal integrity by proposing to spend upwards of $500 billion on high-speed rail. Today, I have to give the President some kudos for including in his budget the revocation of the biggest small bribe in modern finance.

Indeed, none other than 43 himself, former President George W. Bush, called for ending taxpayer-funded subsidies to the oil industry back in 2005.

Even experts at the conservative Heritage Foundation believe energy subsidies distort our national economy and should be terminated. Dr. David Kreutzer, Heritage's energy expert, told the New York Times "we know that petroleum and coal survive just fine" without subsidies.

Yet for years, Washington's formidable oil lobby has been able to stymie the best laid plans of legislators to do so.

Which begs the question: who's got more gall? The President, for having the temerity to strip government subsidies to oil companies from his current budget? Or Big Oil's lackeys, for insisting the most lucrative industry on the planet still needs taxpayer subsidies to survive?

Petro-Dollars at Work?

Why does the U.S. oil industry deserve $4 billion annually in tax breaks anyway? Granted, four billion dollars here, and four billion dollars there, and pretty soon, we're talking about real money. But real money for whom? Taxpayers, who could use every red cent to help put our budget back in the black, or oil companies who earn hefty profits providing virtually all of the fuel upon which our economy runs?

Both our government and the oil industry exist as behemoth organizations for whom billions of dollars represents chump change. Except, apparently, when it comes to being deprived of it. Both Uncle Sam and Big Oil have also become mutually-interdependent, a marriage of necessity in a post-industrialized one-superpower planet where their dominance is unrivaled. Except one is supposed to be a civic administrative body, while the other claims to be a for-profit business enterprise.

After President Obama's State of the Union address last month, Big Oil's principle lobbyist Jack Gerard had the audacity to crow that "The U.S. oil and natural gas industry... does not receive payments from the government to support oil and gas development." As if it should. And this means they're entitled to subsidies. Does Gerard mean to imply that Big Oil has purely altruistic motivations when they sell Americans the fuel we need? Are they really non-profits at heart, doing their best to help Americans survive?

Some petroleum pundits say that we taxpayers don't give our benefactors in the crude business enough credit and deference (and yes, the pun is intended). In fact, the American Petroleum Institute insists that Big Oil actually subsidizes our government at a rate of $95 million every day if you factor in all of the benefits their products provide our economy.

If you didn't know any better, it might sound like the Exxon-Mobil's of America are $4 billion away from insolvency.

Big Oil as Thug Oil?

For all of the political and philosophical reasons people disagree with President Obama, we should be able to agree that he's correct in trying to cut the national budget by $4 billion a year. By taking taxpayer-funded subsidies away from a private industry which earns 99% of its revenue well enough on its own.

Doesn't it appear that, considering even President Bush and the Heritage Foundation have come out on the same side as President Obama on this issue, Big Oil's lobbyists hold too much power over legislators? Doesn't this speak volumes about how special interests continue to rule Washington with iron fists?

If Washington cuts off this yearly token to America's oil companies, might they relocate their headquarters off-shore to tax havens in the Caymans and Bermuda? Might they seek to punish the United States for playing politics over such a relatively trivial amount of cash? Some oil services firms have done just that already, although few can argue that the Caribbean isn't a nicer place for corporate executives to comfort themselves than Houston, with its stifling humidity and snarled traffic.

As our economy becomes increasingly global, losing corporate taxpayers with international business dealings does become more of a concern. But if $4 billion is all that's standing in the way of Big Oil's flight from the bosom which bore her, what does that say about the intrinsic integrity of capitalism - for a company like Exxon-Mobil being able to hold taxpayers hostage through entitlements?

We've all heard of "too big to fail." But can we allow "too big to pay?"

After all, this ain't Bensonhurst.

Oil Company Revenue - 2010
Exxon Mobil: 284,650 (million)
Chevron: 163,527
ConocoPhillips: 139,515
Valero Energy: 70,035
Marathon Oil: 49,403
Sunoco: 29,630
Murphy Oil: 19,138

Total Revenue: $755,898,000,000
Source: Fortune Magazine

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Loco Motive for High Speed Rail

"All aboard! All aboard!"

Tickets, please!

Last call for the Tuesday Express to Sanity Station. After this train, they're all going to be local boondoggles to Never-Never Land.

At least, that's the railway timetable President Barak Obama is proposing.

With a straight face, he and Vice President Joe Biden have begun their campaign to champion nationwide high-speed rail. Even though Obama has just released one of the most disappointing and downright irresponsible budgets in American history. A budget that includes so much debt that this year, what we owe will equal our Gross Domestic Product for the first time since World War II.

Despite so many people from both sides of the political aisle demanding spending reductions, Obama refuses to enact "change we can believe in." Instead, he plays old-time free-spending politics, proposing to amass even more debt for coast-to-coast high-speed rail. To the tune of $53 billion over six years. To start.

Riding the Rails

Not that high speed rail itself doesn't have merit. Indeed, it has proven to be relatively successful in Europe and Japan. China has embarked on its own high speed rail network, so Americans weary of freeway congestion and cattle-car airport drudgery have been clamoring for one of our own. After all, our Frontier was built on rail, and our Northeastern population centers from Boston to Washington, DC couldn't function without rail. All we need to do is upgrade some tracks, rebuild a few stations we tore down during the sixties and seventies, and buy us some of them cool-lookin' bullet-shaped trains.

Except if it were all that logical, private industry would be all over it, right? And they're not, are they? Free-market capitalists would look at the scenario Obama and his rail buddies have dreamed up and say, "Well, if the private sector doesn't think it will work, it's probably a bad idea."

Meanwhile, government bureaucrats and pro-union politicians look at the scenario and say, "Well, if the private sector doesn't think it will work, that must mean it's a sure-fire money pit for Uncle Sam! Let the cost-overruns begin!"

Which is exactly the line of non-logic Obama has bought into. Literally. But with our money.

Ticket to Nowhere

Columnist Jan Cheaney of World Magazine has written a good op-ed piece summarizing some of the main reasons why high-speed rail simply won't work in the United States. They include Amtrak's abysmal on-time record, frightfully costly infrastructure upgrades required for bridges and tracks to accommodate increased train speeds, and dueling interests between passenger and freight traffic on shared rights-of-way.

But there's more:

- High Speed Rail Can't Negate Urban Congestion

First, if high-speed train travel will be used to take cross-country drivers off of the road, the wide open spaces between cities - where high-speed trains could themselves speed up - aren't the problem. When you're driving from Baltimore to Seattle, where do you get bogged down? In large urban centers, correct? Because that's where most people are having the worst time trying to get across town.

The need for relieving traffic congestion remains concentrated in our high-density population centers. High speed rail will do nothing for fixing city traffic, because it won't be designed for getting commuters from their homes to work and back. Even light rail projects rarely attract significant ridership because with the exception of a few older cities, population densities don't exist in concentrations large enough to justify mass transit.

To top it off, trains themselves will have to slow down drastically to maneuver through built-up streetscapes, just like cross-country travelers need to do.

- Train Travel Has Already Proven Itself No Match for the Automobile

Second, speaking of population density, can passenger rail overcome the sprawling urbanization our car culture has perpetrated on America? Although passenger rail continues to be popular in the Northeast, its success has come by virtue of the fact that so many people live in such a confined area. And that driving from Danbury to Midtown Manhattan every morning would drive many commuters bonkers.

However, can we take the population dynamics of the Boston - Washington corridor, factor in their relevance to train travel in that region, and extrapolate the result across the rest of our country, where the population is far less concentrated? Europe and Japan are tiny in comparison to the United States, so that helps explain why high-speed rail works so well there. For places like Little Rock and Buffalo, not so much.

If you're not going to fly, it's still simply more convenient and efficient to drive cross-country.

- Can High Speed Rail Dispel the Bane of Airport Congestion?

Third, what is the biggest bane of air travelers these days? Security, right? How is shooting an aluminum snake across the country not going to entice terrorists? We can't seem to convince the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security that treating all travelers as criminals is the wrong way to combat terrorism in our transportation system. So we'll probably end up with similarly-stringent security on trains, especially if passengers will have access to more of their luggage than they do on planes.

So where's the time savings and increased convenience factor that rail travel might have provided? And what about the lost glamor of air travel now that airlines cram passengers into their planes? Who's to say operators of our high-speed trains won't do the same thing, trying to increase revenue to justify the enormous public investment?

- Obama's High Speed Trains Would Be Much Slower than Europe's

Fourth, the top speeds planned for any of Obama's high speed rail lines is 150 mph, which may sound pretty fast until you consider that in Europe, high-speed trains need to meet a threshold of 200 mph before they're classified as high-speed. Some go even faster than that.

So we're not even talking about pure-bred, world-class, legitimate high speed rail in Obama's plan. In fact, on the highway, anybody with a new Mustang or Camaro, a lead foot, and a disregard for the law could probably beat most of the president's trains.

- Long-Term Development Costs Could Exceed $500 Billion

Fifth, people in Obama's own administration, including Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, have hazarded conservative guesstimates that over the next 25 years, the government may end up spending a whopping $500 billion on this high-speed rail project. That's half a trillion dollars. What'll that do to our debt? No less an Obama cheerleader than the Washington Post has come out against this flagrant mis-spending for high speed rail.

Derail the Loco Motive

Simply put, high speed rail does not suit our transportation needs here in the United States. It is no faster than flying, and holds no economic advantage, particularly when our government needs to be more accountable with taxpayer dollars than ever before.

Although commuter rail and light rail systems do make economic sense in select American cities, they do not provide the corollary that justifies extending high-speed passenger rail access to 80% of the country. Republicans would already like to axe all funding to Amtrak, and since arguments for saving conventional long-haul passenger rail are thin at best, where's the logic in pumping more money into even faster trains?

Instead of continuing to play politics and do government the old-fashioned way, Obama should have presented a budget which acknowledges the gravity of our financial situation and chops programs left and right. Literally, figuratively, and politically. For him to propose more imprudent spending in these bleak fiscal days almost seems insulting to us taxpayers. Remember, this $56 billion represents only six years' worth of a 25-year $500 billion program. For something plenty of evidence proves we don't need.

Yes, folks, the last train is leaving the station before the end of the day.

And darkness shrouds Washington as above the Treasury Building, an expanding mountain of debt obscures the setting sun.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Paying for School Funding Flaw?

When it comes to lowering taxes, everybody thinks they know the solution: cutting costs.

Including me. Last Friday, in the interest of helping save school districts money, and thereby stave off a tax increase or another round of teacher layoffs, I floated the unlikely idea that sports programming should be funded by professional sports leagues. Not taxpayers.

But as I researched the numbers involved in paying for, say, bilingual education programs, I began to wonder if I was falling into the same trap everybody else is: assuming that we can cut our way out of these fiscal problems.

Budget Cutting Shortfalls

Granted, not every money-saving idea is as radical as my suggestion to make pro sports pay for public school athletics. Some people want to cut free breakfasts and shorten bus routes, while others pursue more ambitious measures like collapsing administrative functions, freezing salaries, and reducing retirement benefits.

Actually, these strategies likely represent thinly-disguised attempts at using budget crises to eliminate programs with which we have philosophical differences, yet whose elimination doesn't really fix deeper problems related to costs. They're feel-good exercises which don't yield much more than lunch money in the grand scheme of things.

Other strategies, like reducing the number of administrators and tweaking raises and benefits may go further, but rarely far enough. For all of the things we still expect out of our public schools, and our public school teachers, we're going to have to cough up the dollars that reality is demanding of us. Especially here in Texas, where school spending is already pretty lean.

Cuts Alone Won't Cut It

Instead, I wonder if you wouldn't continue indulging me as I try to connect some dots.

I suspect something deep and intrinsic in our culture needs to change. I wonder the extent to which the cost savings corporate America has wrung out of our society these past couple of decades has finally begun to catch up with us. Cost savings which have been achieved by, among other things, suppressing wages.

Now, I'm not saying we need to jettison free market capitalism. Our economic problems represent degrees in functional success, not the wholesale collapse of the world's most dynamic financial system. Nevertheless, we all know that wages paid to American workers have been stagnant for years, at least relative to the cost of living. And maybe this discrepancy can no longer be ignored.

Employers tell us we're being paid what we're worth to them, but haven't they only been making their calculations based on their individual company's micro-economics? While some capitalists say that's how finance should be done, the fact that high-ranking executives seem blissfully immune to the staffing budgets crimping pay scales below them probably proves plenty of loopholes remain to be cinched in this equation.

As American salaries have stagnated, while living costs have continued to escalate, taxpayers have continued to get squeezed as their housing values have soared. Which means their property taxes have soared, which means more money is being taken out of salaries which haven't kept up. So the educational standards most middle-class Americans have come to expect, like low teacher-to-student ratios, robust sports programs, state-of-the-art campuses, and the like all cost more, but it's taking disproportionately more money out of individual taxpayers' pockets. We've now come to the point where a lot of people have begun to notice the financial pain.

Might School Finance Woes Have Broader Cause?

What does that have to do with capitalism? Well, perhaps it shows how taxpayers have taken corporate America's lead and implied that cost-cutting in the only solution for our school finance woes. Further to the point, however, perhaps it shows the weakness of an economic system which, in Darwinian fashion, can prejudice a survival-of-the fittest mentality against the incentives workers need in a free market economy. To say nothing of profitable companies laying off workers for no other reason than to further pad their cash reserves.

If you see disparities in compensation, refusing to acknowledge capitalism's propensity for unjustified rewards in the face of unbridled greed may contribute to the problem. If corporate America says I'm earning too much, than these teachers are certainly not worth what we're paying them! This the trickle-down part of capitalism conservatives don't like talking about. If you're working longer hours for what equates to less money, and you're being taxed more, you lash out, insisting that cuts made to taxpayer-financed programs can fix the situation.

Unfortunately, while budget-tightening should never be overlooked as a solution, spending cuts will eventually cut into the quality of life our middle class has come to expect in the United States. And if right-wing conservatives think Americans should make do with a lower standard of living, they're just opening the floodgates for socialism. A dissatisfied electorate, fueled by classism and elitism, however misperceived, is never a pretty picture.

But, I digress. Yes, some liberals have begun pondering how much more economic stratification will be required before lower-income Americans tilt the sociopolitical landscape towards economically-harmful policies. However, as a counter-point to everyone who thinks I'm an irascible cynic, I'd like to think that the public education system in the United States has been able to churn out enough sensible and creative citizens who can infuse some ingenuity and energy into our economy.

Cutting Into Bone?

And speaking of public education, consider the budget quandary of the Arlington Independent School District here in north Texas, where I live. Out of their $443,340,022 annual budget for this year, roughly 88% of their expenses go to payroll. This means that if you're going to make real headway in cutting costs, you're going to have to fire teachers. Which means more pupils per classroom.

So what?

Well, consider the fact that according to the AISD's own numbers, their Percent of Budget Total - Instruction (how much of their budget is spent on items directly related to classroom instruction) is 66%. This is one of the highest rates in Texas, and higher than other more desirable districts like suburban Mansfield and Birdville.

Consider the Central Administration costs here in Arlington, which run 1.7% of the budget, one of the lowest in the state. This means that teachers comprise two-thirds of the school district's expenses, and that ancillary support staff make up most of the remaining cost of providing public education here in Arlington. Not special programs. Not a bloated administrative bureaucracy. Not even extravagant football facilities, although I still think my pro sports sponsorship idea would save taxpayers money.

Does It All Come Down to Money?

Many conservatives would say that I've blown my whole argument about stagnant wages and unnecessary layoffs by pointing out that even in a well-run educational enterprise, the employees comprise the biggest financial liability. If you can run an organization with fewer people, you should automatically save money. That's what happens in business, so that's what should happen in public education.

Except points of comparison don't always dovetail that succinctly, do they? Yes, paying for people to produce your product is the biggest expense for most organizations. But aren't school districts quite different from widget manufacturers?

For generations, American society has valued the contribution that a public school system provides our economy, our democratic republic, and our civic heritage. Providing employers with people who have mastered a general benchmark of proficiency in reading, writing, and extrapolating information has helped to make us the most productive country the world has ever known. Granted, the argument could be made that the output from our public schools isn't what it used to be, but I'd lay the blame for that more on parents than educators.

Some people point to the increasing educational superiority of kids from other countries as proof that America's educational system is broken. Some people want to cast the notion of public schooling as an entitlement that has outlived its usefulness, which should therefore be discontinued. On a bad day, I might entertain that argument myself. But in the meantime, it's still a generally-understood notion that public schools, in principle, are worth funding through tax dollars. So, how are we going to pay for it?

Perhaps it could start with national business leaders realizing that scrimping on employee pay at the expense of bloated executive suite compensation and cash reserves isn't doing our nation any favors. Of course, this would probably involve a collective re-think of Wall Street's inordinate fixation on short-term gains and shareholder value. School financing wouldn't directly be fixed by such a feat, of course, but might having less income disparity make the rising costs of public school funding less punitive?

Does that mean I'm saying we need to pay higher taxes to fix school funding issues? Well, if you live in America's Northeast, where absurd school taxes can go no higher, I think y'all need to swing that budget axe as much as you can. But for the rest of us, particularly here in Texas, with some of the cheapest taxes anywhere, maybe we do need to swallow the bitter pill of reality.

I'm afraid none of these fixes will be quick and pretty. And I'm not even convinced that improving worker salaries will be as beneficial as I'd like to think it would be. We've developed a nation of Scrooges, no matter their socioeconomic status. Since when does giving more money to a Scrooge make him more generous?

All I know is that I don't look forward to a future populated with new generations of Americans educated by an impoverished public school system.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Regime Change - in Egypt, and our Schools

In Egypt, Might Mubarak be Right About Something?

Last week, in the face of irrefutable revolt by millions of his countrymen, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak bristled at the notion of abdication. He complained that international pressure, fomented in part by the media, was complicit along with Arab activists in encouraging his people to stage the protests that had riveted the world's attention.

Flash forward to this morning, after word broke out that Mubarak had resigned. Watching and listening to CNN's live webscast from Cairo, I could hear nothing except the sounds of people cheering and car horns blasting. It appeared to be an unscripted, raw tableau of history - as it happened. No news anchor droning on with a live play-by-play account of the jubilant throngs celebrating across the city.

As the camera panned away from a nearby street to crowds waving flags beyond a distant elevated roadway, a male reporter's voice could suddenly be heard in the background. But this reporter wasn't trying to provide live commentary. I don't even know if he worked for CNN. I could tell he either wasn't speaking into a microphone, or the technicians weren't trying to improve his audio quality. Instead, this reporter began joking with a young man, presumably an Egyptian organizer of the protests. The reporter playfully asked the Egyptian if he had telephoned Mubarak to work out details of his relinquishing power. Presumably uneager to make fun of the moment, the Egyptian convinced the reporter to change the subject.

So, switching gears, the reporter fell into a contemplative, almost awe-struck mood, and recalled that when his producer sent him to Cairo three weeks ago, he found only fifty men protesting in this square. At first, the reporter explained that he didn't understand why he was being assigned to cover what appeared to be a non-story. He cursed his producer, yet appeared to credit him with knowing something the reporter did not. Little did he think, professed the reporter, that he'd be witnessing regime change just three weeks later.

Not long after those comments, which seemed surprisingly private, the webcast's audio feed went dead, although the video feed continued.

Hmm, I thought. Did that reporter's superiors at CNN realize that their cover had been blown? Was this one of those live-mike moments, where people who should know better spill the beans thinking they weren't wired for sound? Might Mubarak have been accurate in suspecting that the international media played no small role in the overthrow of his government? Did CNN know that those small demonstrations would conflagrate into the massive protests that forced Mubarak from power?

Or was this all a fluke - that CNN sent this reporter to Egypt on the off-chance something big could happen, especially considering the unrest in Tunisia last month. Did the producer not really explain much to his reporter, not knowing himself that this assignment would end up be the coverage of regime change in Egypt? Was this reporter simply a clueless schmuck following orders? Did all of the international media coverage of angry protesters in Tahrir Square, in reality, provide little impetus and legitimacy to the opposition movement?

If you're a conspiracy theorist, you could make a lot of hay out of the reporter's ad-lib comments and his audio feed suddenly being pulled. If you're an uncynical believer in grass-roots democracy, this was just an innocent exchange between two sudden witnesses to history. They were simply trying to make small talk while they thought their mikes were off.

As for myself, I fall somewhere in the middle. I think social media and international pressure based on the non-stop, live, on-site reporting from across Egypt played crucial roles in Mubarak being forced from power. Yet I also think the media likes to give themselves too much credit for a lot of what goes on in our world.

After pretty boy reporter Anderson Cooper got roughed up recently by protesters, the press seemed indignant that people they were covering would turn on them. I wonder the extent to which the Egyptians were saying to the TV news crews, "OK, boys; we'll take it from here."

Let's just hope that where they're taking it is a true, capitalist, democratic republic.

Public School Funding? Make the Leagues Pay to Play

No matter where you live in the United States these days, public school funding has probably crashed into crisis mode. With the Great Recession gnawing into the fabric of our post-industrial economy, school districts seem to be fighting for their survival now more than ever.

Yesterday, for example, the Dallas Independent School District here in Texas floated the dire scenario of firing 3,100 teachers, inflating class sizes up to a jaw-dropping 50 students. And Texas has one of the healthiest economies in the country!

Now, obviously, as state budgets come under review, the process for deciding what gets funded becomes an ugly, political one. Inevitably, some solutions will be painful, especially if education really is the most important part of school budgets. This means we'll be seeing a lot of compromising and deal-making between now and when the budget axe finally falls.

And speaking of axing stuff, I've got just the place to start: Cut sports programming.

Now, I can hear the protests already, particularly since I'm in Texas, where football is as much a religion as Yankee-bashing. You'd scoff that just because I'm not into sports, I don't have a right to tell sports-crazed parents their kids can't participate in school sports.

And you'd be right. I'm not saying that sports programming should be eliminated. It just shouldn't be funded through public school budgets.

Instead of tax dollars going to pay for school sports, why not have professional sports leagues fund school sports instead? After all, the major leagues are awash in our money already. And since I'm not a sports aficionado, why should my parents' tax dollars have been spent on something I'd have never used?

Think about it: what other industry gets the public to pay for 12 years of training? What other industry gets their workers with hardly any up-front investment?

Are sports programs an essential part of public education, like reading, writing, and math? Every member of our society needs to be proficient in the basics, but no sport is part of the basics. So why do schools need to fund things like basketball, swimming, lacrosse, and football?

We've already cut fine arts programs to the bone, even though it's a goofy argument, asserting classical music and art appreciation don't help kids learn. Generally, the only people who support that line of thinking are the very people who could have benefited from a little Bach and Monet in their formative years.

Why shouldn't the professional sports leagues who benefit the most from school sports programs be expected to pay for them, instead of taxpayers? For example, since football dominates all else in Texas, the NFL could develop a K-12 football program for the state's public school systems. The NFL could train the coaches and pay their salaries. Schools could lease their existing facilities to the NFL for a fee, or the NFL could build new stadiums, as well as pay for equipment and travel.

What would the NFL get out of this arrangement? Well, for starters, the NFL could develop talent literally in-house, scouting for their pro players from day one, and nurturing the public's appreciation for their sport. Funding school sports could help build brand loyalty and even expand the league with more local franchises.

Maybe this would contribute to the already-ridiculous cross-marketing gimmicks professional leagues foist on their fans. Maybe it would exclude marginal players at earlier ages, since pro leagues would have a vested interest in nurturing star jocks over average players.

But since taxpayers have, by telling legislators not to raise school taxes, told their school districts that saving money trumps everything else, why shouldn't sports get alternative funding?

If it's time to get back to basics in our schools, can we keep kidding ourselves that school sports deserves to stay in the game at taxpayers' expense?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Virtually Inferior Preaching

The de-construction of the evangelical church continues.

Perpetrated, as it has been for decades, by the church itself.

First came the abandonment of corporate worship elements subjectively interpreted as stuffy and culturally irrelevant. Then came the seeker-sensitive movement, in which church became little more than a morality country club.

The idolization of preachers leads the current charge, as congregations across North America jump on the satellite church bandwagon. This phenomenon can also be called multi-site, video venue, and church franchising. Whatever you call it, however, only serves to mask our renewed focus on preachers as celebrities.

Which cannot bode well for the future of America's evangelical church, can it?

High Tech Circuits Rider

Back in the early days of our nation's history, and even today in those few, rural, and sparsely-populated swaths of North America, the old circuit-riders would journey from tiny chapel to tiny chapel, preaching several times a day to several different congregations, none of which could afford a full-time pastor of their own. It wasn't really an ideal situation for anybody, but it worked; the Word was preached, and Christ's Kingdom was built.

Aside from the meager finances of many small churches, another of the reasons for the use of circuit riders in the United States involved the fact that few qualified seminary graduates were available for the multiple pulpits popping up across the newly-developing countryside. But today, our nation is saturated with seminary graduates, many of whom can't find employment as a professional minister because of all the stiff competition.

So for the most affluent, church-crowded, and seminarian-inundated country the world has ever witnessed to start farming out sub-congregations with video preaching seems goofy at best and self-aggrandizing at worst. Might this be just another rung on the trip to cultural irrelevance for the evangelical church?

It's not even just the usual suspects participating in this reckless popularity contest. Yes, Willow Creek does it, as do its Texas clones Fellowship Church and Gateway Church in suburban Fort Worth. Statistics put the number of churches running satellite locations in the hundreds. Even reformed congregations such as Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and Mars Hill Church in Seattle have developed multi-site ministries.

Granted, Gateway Church offers a pastor at each of its satellite campuses, and Redeemer Presbyterian rotates its preaching pastors through each of its Manhattan locations. So they're not exactly using technology to clone the senior pastor like other churches do. And Redeemer and Mars Hill have some extenuating circumstances, such as zoning and building regulations, high construction costs, and other urban-density factors inherent in their metropolitan locations that make constructing new worship facilities prohibitive. But still, Mars Hill and Fellowship Church have satellite campuses in New Mexico and Florida, respectively. Not even in the same states as their original, flagship congregations. How self-aggrandizing is that?

Celebrity Preachers

We knew this was coming. With the explosion of video and Internet technology, the idea of having one pastor preach to groups of people clustered in front of massive screens across the country is actually rather dated. At least in terms of cutting-edge technology. Is the fact that this idea has now taken off, however, cause for celebration?

First, we need to consider the concept of celebrity pastors. We've had them for centuries, from Martin Luther and John Calvin to John Donne, John Wesley, and Charles Spurgeon. But most of these guys would probably have been too humble to assume what today's mega-church preachers believe: that their preaching is better than anybody else's, so that's why they need to replicate themselves in multiple congregations.

And it's not just the preachers who think they're so good. It's their congregations, comprised of people so wrapped-up in our Hollywood culture that they think nothing of ascribing celebrity status to men of the cloth. Even if they won't admit it, parishioners have their favorite pulpit suppliers, and we all have become extremely picky about who we will let preach to us.

I used to volunteer at the information booth of an up-and-coming contemporary church, and every week, congregants would come up to us and ask who was preaching that Sunday. If it wasn't the senior pastor, some of them would actually turn around and leave. Their decisions had little to do with Biblical accuracy, doctrine, or even looks, but the idea that the senior pastor is the best by default.

Now, I'm not saying that some pastors aren't better communicators than others, nor am I saying that congregations shouldn't expect their preachers to teach well. Preaching elders, as most pastors are, must hold certain basic qualifications in terms of knowledge, competence, and gifting. But let's admit it: most preachers are average, some are exceptional, but few of them are actually bad. Hopefully, most bad preachers are diverted from the pastorate while still in seminary, or are gracious enough to realize their gifts lie elsewhere.

Within the Presbyterian Church in America, Tim Keller, senior pastor at New York City's Redeemer Presbyterian, has become a superstar preacher for one obvious reason: he's an excellent communicator. He's also wise, insightful, well-read, engaging, and just blunt enough to keep you following his line of reasoning. Personally, I'm amazed at how in virtually all of his sermons, Keller finds a way to wrap whatever topic about which he's preaching around the cross of Christ. Naturally, Keller's not perfect, but he hits so many nails on their heads, you can't help but admire the structural integrity of his sermons.

Why It's a Bad Idea

Yet even Keller has realized that he can't expect to replicate himself among the different clusters of worshippers that Redeemer has scattered across Manhattan Island. Instead of running live video feeds of himself preaching through all five locations, a team of pastors rotates along with him, sharing the preaching duties.

Why is that?

Probably for the same reasons Ed Young, senior pastor at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, shouldn't be beaming his tanned Boomer face to a group of people at Fellowship's congregation in Miami, Florida. Aside from the year-round tan, does Young have any business being a remote pastor?  Do other pastors who feel compelled to share their charisma with multiple congregations simultaneously?  Is there really a shortage of preachers in the United States?  Consider:
  • Economies of scale only go so far in justifying satellite churches. How much money do congregations really save by sharing logos, Power Point graphic artists, and back office administrative staff?
  • How convenient should attending church really be? If you don't want to travel an hour or half an hour to hear your favorite preacher, should you really expect him to come to you? Why don't you move closer to your church?
  • How much discipleship takes place when you're physically removed from your teaching pastor? Granted, in most mega-churches, precious few people get to know their senior pastor, but still, if God wanted remote preaching, couldn't He just beam something down from Heaven every week? No, He created the gift of teaching and gave that gift to human beings. Presumably, so that human interaction could be a component of that teaching. Just because your mega-church is too large for you to get to know your senior pastor doesn't mean a video link is going to correct anything; maybe it means mega-churches aren't the best interpretation of Biblical community.
  • What makes your favorite preacher better than somebody else you've never met? How do you know your preacher deserves to be broadcast from virtual pulpits, when his message could be taking the place of someone else God has gifted in a particular way that simply may not be your favorite?
  • In this age of increasing reliance on technology, how wise is it to further remove congregations from the men who preach the Word of God? Social networking cannot generate personal relationships the way face-to-face interaction can. Even if the only digitized person in your congregation is the pastor, what does that say about a church's ability to fellowship well?
Indeed, technology can be a wonderful thing, but just because it gives us the ability to do something, that doesn't mean we should.

From Fad to Flame Out?

I'd have much less of an argument to stand on if the satellite church proponents were actually beaming their sermons to remote tribal villages in the African bush or Pacific islands, where seminary-trained preachers remain scarce. Of course, having an Internet connection to a sermon with Fellowship Church's Young preaching in front of a Rolls Royce wearing skin-tight clothing and highlighted hair would probably not be very effective even in Watts, let alone Sierra Leone.

Which is what I hope all of this really is: just another sappy trend. Like many other fads born of the Boomer popularity angst, such as intentionally-ripped jeans and two-tone hair, satellite churches may simply flame out when congregants begin to realize they can watch the video feed from their computers at home.

In the meantime, how effective will it have been for communities of faith to continue replicating the very societal patterns threatening to destabilize our society? Who says following the culture is mandatory? To what extent might off-site preaching mirror - if not facilitate - the interpersonal disconnect prevalent in our society, plus the virtual de-construction of western civilization as we know it? (And yes, the pun is intentional.)

After all, when you take the human element out of preaching, how much else is left for the church to do church?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Nobody's Winning Super Bowl Blame Game

An Open Letter to the Media:

Yesterday, the city of Arlington, Texas hosted Super Bowl 45 at Dallas Cowboys Stadium. Unfortunately, as was the case during most of last week, conflict and disappointment marred what our local leaders had intended to be an unrivaled event at one of the world's landmark sports venues.

In particular, the last-minute revocation of tickets to hundreds of temporary seats left many fans fuming. Although some ticketholders could be accommodated elsewhere in the stadium, others were deprived of their opportunity to attend the celebrated game.

While indeed, this indelibly marred the Super Bowl experience for many fans, the situation has been aggravated by sloppy, inaccurate, and incomplete reporting by many media outlets. This, in turn, has only fed the rumor mills and generated undeserved hostility towards innocent parties.

After having read, seen, and heard accounts of yesterday's seating debacle on multiple media formats, we surely need a clearer picture of what actually took place at Cowboys Stadium to come into focus.

According to a compilation of various accounts, it appears the private contractor hired by the NFL to construct temporary seating structures around the stadium failed to complete the project in a timely manner. One news organization, the local ABC affiliate WFAA, reports that questions concerning the timeliness of the seating project were raised as early as two weeks ago. Other news outlets have blamed the debilitating winter weather last week for preventing workers to adequately staff the project.

As gametime rapidly approached yesterday morning, it has been reported that Arlington's city code inspectors and officials from the fire department were on-site, ready to certify the safeness and compliance of the temporary seating in accordance with existing safety codes. Those codes are not arbitrary, capricious, or nebulous. We've hosted the World Series, the NCAA Finals, and millions of tourists to our amusement parks over the years, so Arlington's safety experts know a thing or two about how to protect the public.

In addition, everybody in town has known the importance of the Super Bowl to our community since we won the hosting bid. Watching the ice, snow, rolling blackouts, and injuries on the stadium grounds compromise the stellar impression Arlington wanted to convey to our international guests, it's hard to imagine any city employee anxious to be the person responsible for creating yet another public relations disaster.

One fan reported on WBAP this morning that, while sitting yesterday during the game next to one of the temporary seating sections which had been cordoned off, he could plainly see that it was unfinished. In particular, he said that railings were not in place. As they chatted with city personnel near the area, they learned that the contractor had walked off of the job that morning. Was learning the truth that easy? If it was, during the afternoon yesterday, the media seemed more intent on scooping each other with aggrieved fans spouting their frustrations than tracking down officials for a precise explanation.

More than one media outlet has seen fit to at least insinuate that Arlington city officials might have been obstinate, rule-crazy, and imperious in their handling of this critical situation. Why didn't the city work harder to ensure the seating would be ready? Why did city officials wait until the last minute before denying hundreds of fans the privilege of witnessing the Super Bowl from their pre-paid seats? Not for the first time, reporters designated themselves judge and jury over the mayhem, disregarding their lack of facts.

Media personnel need to acknowledge and appreciate the fact that while the City of Arlington was hosting the Super Bowl, the event itself was owned and operated by the NFL. The NFL did not contract with anybody from the city to erect the temporary seating. How inappropriate would it have been for the city to grant safety waivers to the NFL for the Super Bowl that could have jeopardized the health and well-being of fans? How inappropriate would it have been for the city to grant waivers to a temporary operator when Arlington code officials are responsible for ensuring safety codes are complied with by local businesses on a daily basis?

Plus, the very fact that the city's fire chief was himself personally on-hand to sign-off on the completed seating project should testify to the city's eagerness to work with the NFL in providing the seating. Obviously, it was in everyone's best interest to have this seating work completed and certified as safe.

Instead of maligning city staff and suggesting officials were derelict in their duty, the media should be praising Arlington leaders for their willingness to hold the line against compromise, even in the face of such a daunting issue as denying ticketholders access to one of the world's most prominent sporting events. We should be thankful that Arlington has leaders who've proven they prioritize public safety.

Even the NFL, which had just as much to lose - if not more - in this debacle, apparently agreed with Arlington's fire chief and went along with his decision. During a televised interview with WFAA, the chief stated that he received no push-back from the NFL when he was forced to render his decision. And it really wasn't even a decision - if the work wasn't complete, the work wasn't complete.

This was not an issue of aesthetics, or of differing methods, or of opinion. The work was not finished. It was not done. Period. End of story. The NFL realized that there was no wiggle room here.

Some people might scoff and trivialize the fact that some railings had yet to be installed. But if you think about the amount of alcohol consumption that goes on during any sporting event, let alone a football game, how wise would it be to not provide railings to keep people from falling dozens of feet onto plain concrete?

Consider, too, that as a sporting event, fans will be jumping up and down, cheering, and mostly oblivious to their surroundings. They rely on the built environment to provide support, protection, and ease of movement. When elements we've come to expect aren't available, we risk losing our balance even when we're intentionally cautious. That's why we have safety codes.

As an ordinary citizen, I'd like to congratulate all of the people at City Hall - from the politicians to the street cleaners - who had a part in organizing Arlington's role in this year's Super Bowl.

I'm proud the city insisted that public safety trumps attendance records. I believe the fire department's performance yesterday proves that any event held in Arlington will be as safe as it can possibly be, and that alone should be a tremendous selling point for our venues. Safety really comes first here.

So while the press and angry fans continue to blast Arlington for all of the snow, ice, ERCOT blackouts, interminable security lines at the stadium, and everything else, I think the City of Arlington deserves to be recognized as the consummate host that it is.

To City Hall, I say: Congratulations, y'all!

And to the media, I say: do some real reporting and interview the contractor* who didn't finish the job.

*The contractor, Seating Solutions of Commack, New York, was identified in the media after this blog post went live.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Whether the Weather Holds

In a way, I feel sorry for them.

All of the people who planned so hard and so long for this Super Bowl week here in Arlington, Texas.

For about two years, public agencies on the local, state, and national levels have been pouring over maps, spreadsheets, and statistics. Private businesses have been submitting bids and stocking up. One cross-town freeway has been practically re-built, coach buses and limousines have been put on order, and several new hotels erected. First responders have drilled, street lights have been recalibrated, and a new passenger terminal constructed at our municipal airport.

We all dodged a bullet - maybe even literally - when the Chicago Bears lost to Green Bay, ensuring the President wouldn't make an impromptu appearance at the big game.

But for people who believe in luck, it certainly seemed to run out this past Monday night, when an ice storm slammed through town. Tuesday morning, streets were varnished with up to three inches of frozen water. And temperatures were in the teens. All day. For several days.

Winter is an Unpredictable Visitor

Up North, where this type of weather can be tricky but hardly paralyzing, salt and dirt would be spread, the ice plowed away, and life would go on. But down here in what native Texans like to call the South, we have never bothered to pay for being prepared for winter weather. Politicians and taxpayers alike shrug and say this kind of thing happens so infrequently, it's not cost effective to budget for it. And if, indeed, these winter storms were infrequent, they'd be right.

So I guess it all depends on your definition of "infrequent." Last year, we received a whopping nine inches of snow in Arlington, and up to a foot in parts of suburban north Dallas. Fortunately, we weren't in the deep freeze for days, but it took forever for all the snow to finally disappear. Granted, we broke all sorts of records last year in terms of snowfall, but "winter mix events" have been striking our stretch of the Lone Star State for more winters than not. And each time they do, businesses shut down, traffic chokes up, schools close, and general productivity craters.

Not that Arlington and our region weren't prepared this year. Knowing how fickle February weather can be in north Texas, the state's transportation department brought in snowplows from Amarillo, in the northernmost corner of Texas, where winter snow is common. Extra inventories of sand and magnesium chloride to chemically treat ice-slicked roadways were on standby. If we would have coasted through this week with unseasonable - yet entirely possible - 70-degree weather, it would have been a huge expense down the drain. But, alas, we weren't prepared enough.

So, for the past several days, schools have been closed, businesses have either shut down or run reduced schedules, and many people around the region have simply hunkered down in their homes to wait out the frigid mess. On Wednesday, rolling blackouts sparked by equipment failures in an electric substation quickly elicited the ire of numerous utility customers, some of whom endured up to six hours without power in twelve degree weather.

One Long, Long, Week

Yesterday, things began looking up, as Tuesday's ice continued to evaporate in the steady wind. An increase in traffic on area freeways seemed to indicate some employees were trying to put in at least a few hours at the office, even though schools remained closed.

Then this morning, we all woke up to at least three inches of fluffy snow. Which in and of itself, probably would not have been too much of a problem. Except that enough wide swaths of ice and patches of frozen slush remained hidden under the snow, enough to sabotage the morning commute and keep schools closed for an exceptionally rare four days in a row.

Both of our major airports were forced to shut down until their runways were plowed once again, meaning that thousands of Super Bowl fans flying into town for the weekend suffered massive flight delays.

And to top it off, as the sun came out this afternoon, sheets of ice started sliding off of the steeply-pitched curves of the Cowboys Stadium roof here in Arlington, injuring six people on the ground who were making final preparations for Sunday's game. Several of the injured workers were taken to local hospitals, with at least one in serious condition.

North Texas Sure Ain't Florida

Haven't Americans become accustomed to having the Super Bowl in a part of the country where sun and balmy temperatures naturally set a festive, carefree tone for the most over-hyped event in sportsdom? It's not hard to understand the allure of sun-kissed beaches and tropical plants welcoming winter-weary football fans eager to forget the snowy cold as they head into the home stretch of blizzard season.

When they were pitching Arlington to the NFL as an ideal location to host the Super Bowl, local officials probably gushed too much about the atypical 70-degree weather we sometimes enjoy at this time of the year. Many of us transplants lured to north Texas were spun a tale of sun without the surf; Texas winters as a true escape from the frigid fury of the Yankee hinterland.

True, I wore shorts and a t-shirt last Saturday while doing yard work, but those of us who've lived here a while know not to expect such pampering by our climate. Not until mid-March at the earliest. That's still plenty early compared to places like Michigan and Vermont, but not early enough for something like the Super Bowl.

So on the one hand, I don't feel very sorry for our local tourism and business relocation executives who, in light of this unfortunate weather, can't avoid having egg on their face this week. But if the NFL was expecting a guarantee of balmy bliss, then they should have done their own homework about the capricious weather here.

Silver Lining in the Storm

If the worst of winter's fury hadn't barreled on through, and we had our typical low-50's temperatures with some seasonably mellow sunshine this week, none of our Super Bowl guests would have had a clue about how nasty the weather can get here in the wintertime. All of the many parties, on-site media shows, NFL charity fundraisers, travel arrangements, and photo ops would have gone off without a hitch, since even with the worst-case-scenario precipitation and temperatures, no other problems have been reported. In fact, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell expressed his amazement yesterday at how well everything has gone this week in spite of all the ice and sub-freezing cold.

Maybe that will be enough to win the Super Bowl again for 2016, which has been the goal of many local organizers of this year's event. But Goodell spoke before today's snow, and this afternoon's accident at the stadium in which six workers were injured.

In Florida or Southern California, you just don't have problems like we've had here this week. In Miami, the only wind is a tropical breeze off of a sparkling ocean. In Los Angeles, the only precipitation comes from movie stars crying from being passed over for an Oscar nomination. Even in Houston, the worst weather anomalies come from its suffocating humidity.

So maybe Arlington winning another chance to host the Super Bowl is something about which we need to be more realistic. After all, when word leaked out that Cowboys Stadium was exempt from the rolling blackouts plaguing every other business and neighborhood on Wednesday, the vitriol unleashed against the NFL by irate, frozen utility customers was about as nasty as the weather. Jones has never enjoyed widespread popularity - or even apathy - here in town, not since one of his first acts as the team's new owner was to fire the legendary Tom Landry.

And officials kept promising everybody here that the Super Bowl would be worth $600 million in new business and sales tax revenue for north Texas. That fantastic-sounding number kept getting dangled in front of state officials who had to pony up funds for widening freeways and building new exit ramps servicing Cowboys Stadium. Anybody who's still expecting a $600 million windfall this week, however, must have been hit by that avalanche that fell from the stadium's roof.

No, at first glance, this week has not been one of Arlington's best. But, if you think about it, and dig a little deeper, all of the planning and preparation that went into getting ready for this week should be worth something, shouldn't it? By all accounts, the level of inter-agency and cross-municipal cooperation has been a first for this region. Never before have so many cities with some of the biggest swaggers in the state of Texas put aside their differences to work for one common goal. Even though the Super Bowl will be played here in Arlington, Dallas got to host most of the NFL's week-long tourist traps leading up to the game; Fort Worth became a tourism magnet, and other suburban cities have hosted events and been able to share some of the spotlight.

Officials from all across north Texas have already said they look forward to leveraging their new-found working relationships with their local peers in future endeavors. That has been a remarkable milestone for a region that can't agree on mass transit and other area-wide initiatives for which urban areas of lesser size in other states have already partnered.

Tomorrow, our temperature should clear the freezing mark for the first time since Monday night. They're predicting a high of only 39, but hey; that's a start. When you watch the game live from Arlington on Sunday night, maybe you'll hardly see any snow when they televise live shots of the area.

Then, too, some forecasters say a chance of snow might be added to the forecast for Sunday evening, as another cold front flirts with north Texas.

And if that prediction does come to pass, you can count on something else, sure as shootin'.

You'll be able to hear Jerry Jones wailing plain as day from his luxury suite.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lunch Art as a Paradox

Was your lunch yesterday a work of art?

For that matter, can you remember what you had for lunch yesterday?

Art can mean different things to different people. And there's nothing especially wrong with that. But according to Alison Knowles and her fans, tuna fish on buttered wheat bread ranks right up there with the Picassos and Warhols at New York City's famed Museum of Modern Art.

Knowles, one of the inventors of the avant garde Fluxus movement, recently hosted a lunch in MoMA's cafeteria of tuna fish sandwiches and buttermilk with 11 people she'd never met before. She considers this performance art, with the title of "Identical Lunch." It proved to be an event worthy of coverage by an arts critic from the New York Times, which reported that similar lunches are already booked up through February.

Now, I know some people think I'm an East Coast liberal, and that I give opponents of right-wing theories too many benefits of the doubt. But really, now: am I missing something?

Across the pond in London, the Tate Modern museum had Knowles throw chopped lettuce over a railing for a popular work entitled "Make a Salad."

And we're supposed to believe that's art, too.

"Who Decides This is Art?"

Not that I'm adamantly opposed to the modern aesthetic. The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth houses some provocative and downright clever pieces, including Ron Mueck's "Untitled (Seated Woman)," Martin Puryear's "Ladder for Booker T. Washington," and Erick Swenson's "Untitled."

There's a massive, darkly poignant painting of Berlin's Reichstag with clay, ash and the brittle husk of a sunflower adding to the drama. And a grand, open book made of lead, with a broad expanse of lead wings symbolizing literature as both flights of fancy and gravely ponderous. All in an unexpectedly pleasing concrete building with the most immaculately-poured walls you've ever seen.

Yet even in this repository of admirable artwork, I've seen some amazingly ludicrous stuff. Like a six-foot fluorescent light bulb (if they think that's art, they'd go crazy in Home Depot). And a whole gallery full of towering canvasses covered in blocks of tan and navy paint.

During one visit, while in a gallery full of childish scribbles, I heard two ladies politely ask a docent, "Who decides this stuff is art?"

To which the guy mumbled something akin to beauty being in the eye of the beholder.

Which means you have some pretty quirky standards if you behold tuna on wheat as exquisite art.

Art Reflecting Life

Not to malign Knowles personally. She was educated at the same alma mater as my father, the venerable Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She's gone around the world as the guest of patrons and museums who obviously appreciate her interpretation of the arts. Apparently, she hasn't had to convince anybody paying her money that what she does isn't downright goofy.

And for me, that points to the real story here.

If you or I walked into MoMA and told them we were going to have tuna fish sandwiches in their cafeteria and, oh yeah, call the Times because we say it's art - they'd call the police instead. If you threw lettuce over the railing at the Tate, you'd risk arrest for littering. So what makes these stunts art? Is it what somebody educated at a prestigious art school claims it to be? Why hasn't MoMA previously told everybody eating lunch in their cafeteria that they're art? If we can't recognize something is art until somebody we want to believe tells us it is, where does this nihilistic vertigo end?

Obviously, MoMA didn't know until Knowles came along that eating tuna sandwiches and buttermilk with 11 strangers is art. Which kind of throws a wrench into the whole art appreciation thing. I mean, if MoMA thought that any group of people having lunch in their cafeteria were committing art, why make a big deal when Knowles does it?

Is art really what you make of it? That's a disappointingly hollow and imprecise concept, but its value as a definition points to where our society is headed. Every man for himself. Relative truth. Objectivism is subjective. Each person being right in his or her own eyes.

Wouldn't it be weird if Knowles has actually disproved MoMA's entire raison d'etre? How nihilistic might that be?

Even the paradox could give art lovers a buzz.